Mastering: The big question?
Do you need to master your music? What is mastering anyway. In this article we explain why you still need mastering today and how it affects your music/track overall. We give you a breakdown of how it works and what equipment you would need for certain applications.
What is Mastering?
The purpose of mastering is to balance sonic elements of a stereo mix and optimise playback across all sound systems and media formats. Mastering also ensures uniformity and consistency of sound between multiple tracks on an album. Ultimately, what mastering does is create a clean and cohesive feeling across all your audio. Mastering can allow a tonal balance too between tracks improving bass, midrange and tops if required resulting in a bigger overall sound and stereo spread across the frequency range.
Do you need to master your track?
To be frank or even Richard. Yes! Mastering is a crucial process needed to insure that your track is set to the correct or desired level needed for release nationally and internationally or just to use on a promotion. It can also put play codes on the track which allows it to be recognised every time its played on air. Mastering should set the audio level correctly to insure that the correct volumes are set to play on streaming apps, radio play, television programs, film, etc. Each area uses a different sound options in dB. Television usually uses a lower as does film. But for film and television your finished mastered music/track will be adjusted to be used on the program or film by a post production sound mastering department. This process usually manages the volume and not the overall sound of the music/track depending on what they are using the music for. Film/video editors agree that the overall sound level of your audio mix (all of your audio combined) should average between -10db to -20db. If you have been asked to do sound for a film T.V program, Web site you must already know that you have to master your overall sound to a set peak level set in Decibels. And you would realise that what ever you supply to a company would be quality checked.
Mastering music/tracks for Release.
This area has changed a lot over the last 20 years due to the introduction of MP3 files in the late 90’s. This allowed for software development to produce digital plug ins i.e. The maximiser, which allowed anyone to push the overall level of your track to 0dB which sounds great but to do this it raised all the frequencies in the audio to 0dB making the track sound very loud but very thin (no depth). Radio and the starting streaming programs struggled to keep a standard level of sound resulting in music tracks distorting or being so loud that they would have to limit the overall sound down drastically. It took time but eventually common sense took over and a new standard came into being due to the digital access to music and how much that market had grown.
Mastering use to abide by the Red Book standard set for CD production. This covered all released music before the introduction of the MP3 file which could be uploaded or downloaded with no set standard for overall audio volumes or protocols. Heres the official description for Red Book :-
Red Book is the standard for audio CD’s(Compact Disc Digital Audio system, or CD-DA) an audio content medium digitised at 44,100 samples per second (44.1KHz) and in a range of 65,536 possible values or 16 bits. It allowed up to 79.57 minutes of digital audio on one disc or 99 tracks. The format was developed by Sony and Philips in the 1980s which became the audio medium standard for decades until the mp3 format was intruded in the late ’90s.
The basic specifications state that:-
1. Maximum playing time is 79.8 minutes.
2. Minimum duration for a track is 4 seconds (including 2-second pause).
3. Maximum number of tracks is 99.
4. Maximum number of index points (subdivisions of a track) is 99 with no maximum time limit.
5. International Standard Recording Code (ISRC) should be included.
Most people mastering their own music are usually not too familiar with all of the requirements of the Red Book which could cause some problems when duplicating CD’s for mass distribution. There is also often a lot of confusion about what exactly ISRC is, how to acquire these codes, and whether or not they are necessary. So here is the official take:-
The International Standard Recording Code (ISRC) system is the international system for the identification of recorded music and music videos. Each ISRC is a unique identifier that can be permanently encoded into a recording or music video. Encoded ISRCs automatically identify recordings for PPL payments.
Today mastering is looked at differently compared to the past. Some people imagine that when their tracks are mastered that the mastering will create or repair inaddiquit mixing and E.Q’ing or produce frequencies that they didn’t put down in the first place. Mastering can only do so much. As the saying goes you can’t polish a turd. Mastering is different to mixing thats why you still have major mastering companies today that master only. Prices ranging from £35 to £200 a track.
These days some people say they can master a track on their computer with software not needing a professional to do it for them and this is true to a degree you can produce masters but that doesn’t mean that they have been produced well or that its mastered properly. With the some music i.e dance music produced mainly in a computer and not relying on using lots of different sound generators i.e keyboards, vocals, instruments other than the software instruments, live drums, etc, etc. This is achievable But when mastering tracks that have a wide dynamic range tonally the process of mastering needs to be controlled with high quality Hardware and software which can cope with the overall dynamic range of the audio. The amount of mastering software available on the market now is ridiculous and lets say you buy a good software package. You will still have to have quality hardware to produce a quality master. A simple computer with software will not do! I have never knowe any profession where one person can do all the specialised jobs needed to produce a finished product and lets face it thats what we’re trying to achieve. Having outside ears, not yours, is a good thing and you might find it a great asset. You could be a great producer/songwriter but not a great engineer or mixer or vicer verser so you get other people who are better than you to do that part of the process. So think about it, to finish the baby, put the shine on it, to make it be what you REALY wanted it to sound like and be, find a mastering studio you can trust or if your supplying it to a label for distribution then get them to help you finish the process. Most music distributors will use an in house mastering service for there clients and will also give you feedback to help you get the sound you want through your mix.
What would I need to do quality professional mastering?
Lets start with the interface to use to get that high quality sound.
Audio Interfaces that are mainly used for mastering need a high dynamic range. Audio interfaces for mixing and mastering can be the same interface but this depends on the quality of the AD DA convertors within the interface you choose. If you can afford then you can buy the best interface with the correct inputs and outputs for your studio
The interface is the powerhouse used in a mastering studio as the interface does all the conversion from the original track source. This is done by audio sound convertors so the higher the quality of your convertors the better the original sound can be captured, stored and played back. So how does it work? The audio is converted through (AD DA) convertors within the audio interface hence you want the best convertors you can get and that comes at a price. You can pay from £50 up to £5000 for a single interface and most people who buy interfaces tend to purchase an interface between £50 – £500 this is why the market is flooded with low costing units which gives you a wide choice if confusing but not the quality you need. Sorry! I must say I was once one of those people who thought I could skimp on the hardware when I started out and when you start building your recording studio your budget is very restricted as we all know but within a short time I realised that to get the best out of my recordings the interface had to be upgraded. I personally would recommend one interface and that could be used to record multiple tracks and do quality masters the Prism Orpheus. I must say I do own one myself and compared to Pro-Tools hardware, which I have owed and used for many years, it leaves it standing as the sonic quality is second to none.
When it comes to choosing the correct interface for your studio to produce quality masters then you must get the best so spend, spend, spend as much as you can. Basically try not to put a price limit on the interface.
Here is a list of interfaces that professionals use to record and master:-
1. Prism Sound DA-2 2 Channel digital to analogue converter £8,394
2. Prism Sound AD-2 2 Channel analogue to digital converter £7,140
3. Prism ADA-128 32 Channel analogue/digital digital/analogue converter £20,388
4. Prism ADA-8XR 8 Channel analogue/digital digital/analogue converter £8,398
5. Prism Sound Atlas 8 Channel analogue/digital digital/analogue converter £3,885
6. Prism Orpheus 8 Channel analogue/digital digital/analogue converter £3225
I can hear people shouting what about RME, UAD Apollo, Avid Pro-Tools(Hardware), Steinberg, Apogee Lynx, etc. For multitrack recording they do just as well (nearly) as Prism products but for mastering you want the best and in my opinion and many other mastering houses plus critics, Prism it is but they do cost a lot plus a kidney.
To create high quality professional masters not only relies on the interface you use but also the equipment used to supply the audio to your interface. When it comes to mastering having dynamic control using compressors or limiters, pre-amps and E.Q is preferred to help deliver the correct or desired sound at the correct volume to the interface you use. This involves lots of routing and if your using high quality dynamic controllers lots of wiring involving patch-bays and probably a mixing desk. This means lots of wiring and cables and lots of noise producing units which will ad up the overall floor noise level no matter what you do. With cables impedance is the main problem. Low quality cables will have a higher impedance level generally than a quality cable also the length of the cable matters as the longer the cable the more impedance. This means in english that the higher the impedance in a cable the more resistance there is and the more resistance the lower the audio signal will be at the other end of the cable, this also applies to wiring. With this in mind you will realise that the longer the cable (wire) the more resistance. So picking your cables (wiring) is just as important as picking or choosing an interface, DAW, software, outboard, mixing desk, speakers, etc, etc. So yes in the case of buying cables/cable wire the choice is critical so most times you will get what you pay for. Think about it you just spent all that money on your studio equipment and you what the best out of your studio equipment so get the best cable/caberling to link them otherwise its like having a Ferrari engine in a Robin Reliant, it has the ability to deliver high quality performance but cant due to the crappy chassis can’t.
When I have been asked to fix problems in studios professional or semi professional/home. 9 times out of 10 the wiring and cables used in there studios are cheap and low quality. I have been in high quality studios and seen that they were using cheap phono leads to route out and back in again the audio on a certain section in their studios. So don’t think its just you if you have a smaller studio. The main reason for this attitude (calamity) is people (we) don’t consider that cables/cable wire a problem or important because “Its just a cable?” That is so far from the truth its like saying the moon is made of cheese, its one of the most critical factors in keeping a quality sound and moving that sound from one audio device to another and back again. I’ll give you a choice. If you had a glass of clean cool water and you had the choice of using a gamy rusty metal tube or a clean glass tube to put in your mouth and drink the water, which one would you use? Hopefully your answer is the glass tube (I’d be pretty worried about your mental state if you picked the gamy rusty tube) and that is because you know (believe) that the water would taste differently than it should compared to the glass tube. It will contaminate the overall taste. When thinking about choosing cable wire or cables then use this analogy to help. Cheap or high impedance cables/cable wire are like the gamy rusty tubes changing the sound from what it was. I must point out out this stage that the noise levels created and frequency loss are not that obvious but add them up and they are.
P.S The connectors you use to connect your studio up with also can affect the impedance levels so again you get what you pay for. Buy quality and for the love of Jerusalem don’t be a scrooge when buying your cables/cable wire and also the connectors.
Today you can buy mastering units or consoles. These units cover everything you need to route your sound and also provide routing for monitoring. They sometimes come as one unit or multiple units depending on which company you buy from. Below are some examples.
1. Prism Maselec MTC-1X Mastering Transfer Console £9,360.00
2. Crane Song Spider & Egret Bundle £24,000.00
3. SPL DMC £5,799.00
4. Rupert Neve Designs Portico II Master Buss £3,699
5. Crookwood Audio M3-7AI Mastering Console £4,652.40
I hope this piece has helped you understand more about what mastering is and what it entails. Also given you more confidence when deciding to master your music and when and why you need to use professional mastering companies. Please look up some mastering companies online and see what they say and also look at the equipment lists that they have and use.
Our next article is on monitor selection and software choice. We will refer to mastering software and monitoring choice too but concentrate on recording software and monitors more as thats the real creative area where the music is made.